The first beta of Microsoft's Windows Vista clearly shows where the operating system is headed. Rather than a dramatic departure from Windows XP, Vista seems to refine the OS with sharper graphics and improved search and security. The new interface and other changes are definitely for the better, but some aspects of Vista--including its Virtual Folders--are a bit puzzling.
Described by company executives as "a plumbing release" containing only about half the features users will receive in the shipping version (still said to be on track for rollout in late 2006), Build 5112, aka Beta 1, was released on July 27 to 10,000 technical testers, with an additional half million IT pros and developers gaining access to the code (if not to tech support) via their respective Microsoft support groups.
Vista's Got the Look
Quite simply, the new OS looks cool. Vista's "aero glass" see-through window frames and green liquid-like progress bars resemble effects that Mac users have enjoyed for years. Vista's icons are representational: A document's icon is an image of that particular document, a file folder containing documents looks like a folder with papers inside--and the top-paper icon is an image of the first document in that folder (see image at left)
The ubiquitous standard application menu bar (the one with the File, Edit, View, and other menus) that traditionally appears just under the window frame has been relocated in Windows Vista and is now below the address bar--or dispensed with entirely. An additional menu bar in Windows Explorer provides several new options, such as the Aero theme's slider control that lets you enlarge or shrink icons. Navigating to a file or folder is much easier because folder names in the Address bar (for example, 'Administrator>Virtual Folders>Favorite Music') are now buttons you can click to go to that folder. Or you can jump straight to any subfolder by clicking the arrow and then choosing the folder from a drop-down menu. Finally, a preview pane at the bottom of the window provides information about the selected item; the kind of info varies by file type (see image at right). You can alter the size and location of the preview pane, or hide it.
Security Is Job One
Conscious of the security and reliability concerns that have plagued previous Windows releases, Microsoft is trying hard to overcome people's resistance to upgrading by proving that with Vista, things have changed. Based on my experience with Beta 1, the results of that effort remain to be seen. The most striking security innovation is the new Limited User account: A Limited User cannot install applications, but can perform routine tasks such as installing a new printer driver.
Microsoft's reviewer's guide promises a host of new security and reliability features--for example, the abilities to detect imminent component failure and recommend responses such as immediate data backup, as well as to detect during startup whether a system has been tampered with. While many of these features, along with improvements in deployment, troubleshooting, and management, are directed primarily at IT departments, they are sure to benefit users, too.